By Louis A. Delvoie
May 29, 2015
Over the past 30 years, proponents of political Islam or Islamism have enjoyed some spectacular successes and suffered some spectacular setbacks. Islamists made headway sometimes through the ballot box, but more often through violent action and terrorism. Their reversals were largely at the hands of the armed forces and security apparatuses of nation-states. Whatever the outcome in any particular case, what is certain is that the Islamists have provoked a conflict of ideas and ideologies throughout the Muslim world and beyond. And that conflict seems likely to be with us for many years to come.
The first major outbreak of Islamist violence occurred in Algeria in 1991. In that year, the Algerian armed forces and security services cancelled a parliamentary election when it became apparent that an Islamist political party would win a majority of seats. This prompted some of the Islamists to go into hiding and to create a movement known as the Armed Islamic Group (AIG). Thereafter, the AIG began a campaign of attacks against both military and civilian targets. What ensued was a virtual civil war lasting almost a full decade, during which both the AIG and the security forces displayed extraordinary brutality. In the end, the security forces won the day, but not before some 100,000 people had been killed. And Algeria retained its traditional authoritarian form of more or less secular government.
In the mid-1990s, at least two Islamist groups decided to try to contest the rule of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. They launched a series of terrorist attacks against mostly civilian targets. In particular, they chose sites frequented by foreign tourists. This had the effect of putting a chill on foreign tourism and having a serious impact on the Egyptian economy. The response of the Mubarak regime was relentless and sweeping. Islamists were rounded up by the thousands, imprisoned and tortured. The attacks eventually ceased and Mubarak won a 10-year reprieve for his regime.
Following the final withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, Afghanistan was plunged into a full-blown civil war. The Afghan mujahideen groups that had fought the Soviets now began fighting each other for control of the country. In 1994 and 1995, a new force entered the fray in the form of a radical Islamist group known as the Taliban, which enjoyed the support of the Pakistani intelligence services in the hope that it could put an end to the civil war. The Taliban were largely successful in doing that, but at the same time provided a triumph for obscurantist politico-religions forces, since they now exercised control over the government of a country. But if the victory of the Taliban was spectacular, so, too, was its defeat in 2001 at the hands of an American-led coalition.
The Islamists also enjoyed some success in electoral politics. Islamist political parties continued to make headway in Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, although they are very far from having the support necessary to form governments in any of those countries. In 2006, Hamas won the election in Palestine and has since then controlled the Gaza Strip, from which it poses a threat to both Israel and the Palestinian government in the West Bank. In 2012, the Islamists scored their outstanding success at the ballot box with the election as president of Egypt of Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. This meant that the Arab world's most populous country (82 million people) was ruled by Islamists. But that victory, too, was very short-lived. The arrogance and incompetence of the Morsi government, combined with the deep hostility of the Egyptian establishment, led to its overthrow by the military in a matter of little more than a year. Since then, Egypt has reverted to what is basically military government, and the members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been mercilessly prosecuted and persecuted.
The advocates of violent Islamism have also known mixed fortunes in the past 15 years. Until recently, their most spectacular action was the al-Qaida terrorist attack on New York and Washington in 2001. This was followed by a string of destructive bombings by al-Qaida and its affiliates in cities in Europe, Africa and Asia. And the al-Qaida brand spread ever further afield with the creation of al-Qaida in Iraq, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). But al-Qaida, too, has suffered many setbacks. The killing of Osama Bin Laden by American forces in 2011 deprived the movement of its most recognized leader. In 2012, Islamist forces led by AQIM occupied northern Mali, but were expelled and dispersed by French troops. And in Yemen, AQAP has suffered severe losses at the hands of local forces and of American drone attacks.
Unfortunately, violent Islamism appears to once again be on the move. The terrorist attacks in Canada, Australia and France were indicative of the widespread dispersal of the ideology. The murders and kidnappings perpetrated by the Boko Haram movement in Nigeria have only added to the many woes being suffered by the citizens of that unfortunate country. And the actions of Islamist militias in Libya have helped further that country's descent into civil war, and increased the risk of its becoming a failed state at Europe's doorstep.
After more than a decade of combat and numerous military setbacks at the hands of Western forces, the Afghan Taliban are still alive and kicking. Together with the like-minded Haqqani Network and Hezb-I-Islami, the Taliban no doubt see new opportunities for fulfilling their ambition to transform Afghanistan into an Islamic State. With the final departure of Western combat troops, the Taliban now find themselves confronted only with the under-trained, under-equipped and frequently unreliable Afghan security forces. The resurgent Taliban have already given evidence of their intentions by mounting highly destructive bomb attacks in the most heavily fortified quarters of the capital Kabul. Elsewhere in the country, they continue to gain ground. The Afghan government may sooner or later have no alternative but to enter into a process of negotiations with the Taliban, with all of the implications that would have for the political and social future of the country.
The most dramatic evidence of the resurgence of violent Islamism appeared last year when the forces of the Islamic State (IS) managed to capture large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. While they, too, have suffered some setbacks, as in the loss of the city of Kobani to Kurdish peshmerga militias, the IS forces have by and large been able to hold and expand their ground. This past month alone, their capture of the cities of Ramadi and Palmyra demonstrated their ability to rout both the Iraqi and Syrian armies.
Eight months of bombing by Western air forces have not dislodged the IS, let alone destroyed it. With the exception of the Kurdish peshmerga, the ground forces lined up against the IS are either totally ineffective (the Iraqi army) or thuggish and unreliable (the Iraqi Shia militias). If the United States and its Western allies hold firm to their determination not "to put boots on the ground" to fight the IS, there is every reason to believe that the IS will be with us as a major Middle Eastern problem for some time to come. Meanwhile, the IS "brand" will continue to attract adherents around the world.
A Concluding Thought
In 1992, the distinguished French scholar Olivier Roy published a book entitled The Failure of Political Islam. He was obviously somewhat premature in his judgment. Islamism has continued to make converts around the world over the past 30 years. The political, economic, social and religious factors that led young Muslims to find it an attractive alternative to the status quo are still very much alive. Their willingness to sacrifice their lives to the cause is still very much in evidence.
How to counter the spread of violent Islamism? There are no easy or complete answers to the question. It would certainly be helpful if the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran could agree to stop fanning the flames of conflict between Sunnis and Shias. It would also be helpful if the authoritarian governments of many Muslim countries could be persuaded to display more tolerance for peaceful Islamist movements within their borders. More generally, however, it will take nothing less than a profound political and intellectual revolution in the Muslim world at large. Until the Muslim world experiences its own version of the 18th-century European Enlightenment, the ideas of freedom, tolerance, equality and progress will not flourish, but extremism will.
Louis A. Delvoie is a Fellow in the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen's University.